By Porfirio Ibarra
The Associated Press
Revelations Wednesday about a Mexican border prison fight that left 17 dead suggested weakness, disorganization and possible corruption at the jail, as well as heightened tensions between local authorities and federal police sent into the city to keep order.
Surveillance video and police reports showed inmates illegally brought a woman, a 15-year-old girl and guns into the prison in violence-plagued Ciudad Juarez, while federal police responding to the fight Tuesday opened fire on a local police chief visiting the scene.
State prosecutors in northern Chihuahua state added that they were investigating reports that the inmates were holding a party in the prison before the riot broke out and that jail guards may have attended. The party, like the girl, the woman and the guns, were all prohibited by rules at the all-male prison.
Video aired on a local television channel Wednesday suggested the guards may have, in fact, allowed the bloodbath to happen. The footage showed hooded, armed inmates talking with guards, who then leave the area before inmates grab cell keys, open a door and apparently fire on those inside with a machine pistol and an assault rifle.
Federal security spokesman Alejandro Poire called for changes at the city-run prison, saying Wednesday, “Obviously, in the case of Ciudad Juarez there are things that have to be cleared up. Fundamentally as we have said, security at the state and local jails all across the country has to be reviewed and strengthened and everything has to be done to avoid tragic events like the one we had there (in Juarez).”
Local authorities slammed their federal counterparts for firing at Juarez police Chief Julian Leyzaola, a former army lieutenant colonel known for his get-tough attitude on crime.
Federal police had thrown up a security ring outside the prison late Monday to prevent escapes when Leyzaola drove up to the scene. Leyzaola was unhurt, largely because he was in a bulletproof vehicle.
The incident marked the latest outburst of tension between local authorities and federal forces who took over most security duties in the border city after an upsurge in killings in 2008. Federal police replaced soldiers in April 2010 amid accusations that the soldiers had abused their authority.
The city has been the scene of bloody turf battles between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels, and the street gangs that have allied with them.
The murder rate in Juarez, a city of 1.3 million across the border from El Paso, has fallen by about 22 percent so far this year. Nonetheless, 1,314 people were murdered in the city from this January through July 27, compared to 1,696 murders in the first seven months of 2010. The full-year total of homicides for 2010 was 3,097, making Juarez one of the most violent cities in the world.
It’s unclear whether the drop in homicides has been triggered by the presence of federal police, a law enforcement clean-up campaign launched by Leyzaola when he was hired in March or a partial truce between warring drug gangs.
In an interview with Milenio Television Tuesday, Juarez Mayor Hector Murguia defended the city’s security situation while announcing that some 5,000 federal police officers sent to help patrol the city will start leaving in September.
Murguia said federal officials decided to withdraw the officers because they believed security in the city is under control and that their duties will be returned to local police officers. Murguia added that the city has gone through extensive efforts to get rid of officers working for drug cartels.
Murguia, in particular, has had angry confrontations with federal police, whom he’s accused of running roughshod over local authorities.
In January, federal officers shot to death one of Murguia’s bodyguards on a city street corner, even though the mayor claimed the bodyguard had obeyed the officers’ orders to lay down his weapon.
Leyzaola also painted a picture of trigger-happy federal authorities in his account of Tuesday’s scrape.
“I saw a federal officer in front of my sport utility vehicle firing at me and in turning to a side, there was a group of between 10 and 15 federal officers firing at my vehicle,” Leyzaola said.
The federal Public Safety Department said in a statement late Tuesday that officials had opened fire because Leyzaola had refused to stop and identify himself.
“During an operation to prevent an escape of prisoners, he broke through the security cordon and, acting against security protocol, went through a checkpoint without stopping,” the statement read. “And for this reason his vehicle was fired upon to make it stop.”
The federal police also said they sent to the prison on Tuesday armored units, which fired at regular police units. Authorities finally regained control of the facility and found 17 people dead, two inmates with gunshot wounds and 72 others with lesser injuries.
The federal police statement also said two females, including a woman who was killed in the fight, were found inside the prison.
Julio Cesar Castaneda, a spokesman for the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office, said it’s investigating reports that even more women had entered the prison for a party held by members of one of the city’s street gangs, and that most left after the fight. The office is also investigating reports that some prison employees may have attended the party.